Old Elora picture resurfaces

Every historian has suffered the experience of not noticing or overlooking an important document. Such is the case with the photograph with this column. It is from an old glass plate negative, and has rested in the Wellington County Mu­se­um and Archives for at least 20 years. Few, if any, local his­torians have looked at it, be­cause the catalogue system iden­tifies it as “unknown vil­lage.”
The person who did the cataloguing either looked at the negative from the wrong side, or did not have knowledge to identify the scene.
Archives staff recently had another look at the picture and decided that it must be Elora, based on some recognizable buildings. The negative bears the name of Elora photo­grapher John Con­non, so it is strange the person doing the initial cata­logu­ing did not try harder to identify the scene. I was happy to confirm staff’s conclusions. Based on the buildings visible, I would date the photo to summer of 1867. Elora’s pioneering pho­to­gra­pher, Thomas Connon, took a number of outdoor views in 1866 and 1867, and this seems to be one. It is unusual because it looks at the village from the north. Most photographs from that series were taken from the opposite side of Elora, prob­ably because Connon wished to use every bit of light available when exposing very slow emul­sion on his glass plates. The name of John Connon on the negative merely indi­cates ownership. John was five when the plate was exposed.
Based on the alignments of identifiable buildings, I believe Thomas Connon stood near the corner of David and Irvine Streets, the site of St. Mary’s Roman Catholic School. That was and is the high­est point on Elora’s north side.
Thomas Connon liked to use a short telephoto lens in out­door photo­graphs. That re­sulted in more detail, but dis­tances are dis­torted, causing frustration to anyone trying to place build­ings. The distant structures are roughly a mile away, but appear much closer.
The negative has suffered much deterioration over the past 140 years. As well, it was not one of Con­non’s better shots. It is slightly overexposed, and the contrast is weak. Much detail that should be visible is murky. Perhaps that is why neither he nor John produced prints of the scene, as they did with sev­eral other shots from 1866 and 1867.
Despite its technical defici­encies, the photograph is one to quicken the pulse of anyone with a serious interest in Elora history. It is the earliest shot of several Elora buildings, and the only known photograph of a couple more.
Near the left side of the picture is a fairly large rectang­u­lar building, with a second structure directly behind it. That is an early one-storey ver­sion of the Elora Public School, now the Elora Centre for the Arts. The rear portion is the girls school of 1856. To the front, with the small bell tower over the door, is the new boys school, relocated in 1866 from a log building on McNab Street.
The building, with its cot­tage roof, contained two class­rooms. The bell tower remain­ed vacant until 1871, when the school board broke down and purchased a bell. Contractors finished construction in Octo­ber 1866, so this is a very new structure. More changes were in the near future. A second storey went on the rear girls school portion in 1871, and in 1874 the boys school under­went a major rebuilding, with a wing extending to the north and a second storey to the entire structure. That increased its capa­city from two to six class­rooms.
Moving to the right, the next large structure is the ori­ginal Knox Church, a wooden building constructed in 1848 in the small square on Church Street. This is a rare broadside view. Other photographs of the building show only the front facade. The building’s future life was short when Connon took this picture. It was demol­ished in 1873 to make way for the current Knox Church.
The next large structure to the right is the Wesleyan Metho­dist Church, now Elora United. It was the first of El­ora’s large church buildings, and was barely five years old at the time of this photograph.
Near the right side of the picture, and partially obscured by other structures, is the Dalby House, constructed in 1865, and the best of Elora’s six hotels in 1867. Rear views of the Dalby House are rare. Plain­ly visible here is the white brick used around the windows, a feature now undetectable under layers of paint.
The large roof near the hotel is that of the Dalby House liv­ery stable. In 1867. it was the headquarters of Robert Dalby’s stagecoach lines to Guelph, Fer­gus, and points north and west in Wellington County. At various times the lines ran to Glen Allan, Hollen, and Cliff­ord. It was something of a rar­ity in that it was built of stone, and survives today as the home of Elora’s Shoppers Drug Mart.
The real treat in the photo­graph is in the far distance, near the centre of the picture, and silhouetted against the dense forest. That is the original St. John’s Church. I believe this is the only existing photograph of the building, though it does appear in a painting by Con­non. It was a wood structure, and one of the oldest in Elora, dating from 1839, though work was not finished until 1842. Like Knox Church, it was on borrowed time. The congre­ga­tion began planning for a new church in 1865, but construc­tion would not start until 1872.
This photograph, now that it is properly identified, will be a major resource to those inter­est­ed in Elora’s history of the 1860s, a period when the vill­age went through a boom in building, and was a major trad­ing centre for a good portion of Wellington County to the north and west.
Next week: A closer look at the portion of the photograph showing the first St. John’s Church, and some of the early history of that congregation.

Stephen Thorning